Adrial Kasonata: There was the colossal international damage caused by Fukushima and Chernobyl, but when these occurred the world showed solidarity. When it comes to Wuhan, we are witnessing xenophobia and racism, not only coming from the mouths of main Western politicians, but also being sanctified by the mainstream media outlets.
Alfred de Zayas: Money rules the world. And a great many citizens of the US, Canada, UK, France, Germany – do not like China because of its economic success. The idea is to knock out China as an economic rival, to “colonise” China and make Chinese industry work for the West as in the nineteenth century during the times of the Opium Wars. Racism and xenophobia are present among politicians and the media, but they are not the source of the problem – but a useful tool to demonize China.
Does the plan to sue China for trillions of dollars have merit in international law? Is it true that China has violated the 2005 International Health Regulations?
The plan has neither justification under international law nor in fact. China has not committed a tort. An unbiased observer may think that China was perhaps too cautious at the outset of the pneumonia cases in Wuhan – tried to avoid panic, investigated, called upon the WHO for help. Retrospectively we think that they could have acted more expeditiously. But if the virus had originated in the United States, in Russia, in Egypt, would these countries have acted faster?
The WHO’s International Health Regulations [IHR] constitute a useful framework for international cooperation in exchanging information and taking coordinated action against pandemics. It consists of 66 articles and nine annexes. At present there are 196 state parties.
IHR is not a convention with liability provisions and certainly not with “unlimited liability.” Nor do the IHRs provide for any kind of “punishment”. Had there been any “strict liability” in connection with the speed of sounding the alarm, no country would have signed the agreement, least of all the United States.
Is China responsible for the ravages of COVID-19?
No. China is a victim of the pandemic like everyone else. Although China was the first country to sound the alarm, it is not certain that the virus actually originated in Wuhan, as there have been numerous reports that the virus had already emerged elsewhere. Investigations are in progress and we are learning more about its origin and why it became so contagious.
This is the time for cooperation and international solidarity. Not a time for blaming others, nor for wasteful, frivolous and distractive litigation.
Obviously Chinese officials needed time to observe the pneumonia outbreak, study its development, identify the new virus, evaluate the danger to China and to the world. They did inform the WHO on 31 December 2019 of 27 cases of atypical pneumonia, and the WHO reflected this information on its website on 4 January 2020, thus signalling a potential danger. On 7 January Chinese scientists identified the new pathogen and shared the genetic sequence with the WHO. As far as I can see, the International Health Regulations were observed. We may have preferred earlier identification of the virus – but we always know better with hindsight.
All responsible governments must have contingency plans to address unexpected events, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes but also pandemics. If the United States had not defunded hospitals and the health infrastructure, if the profit-seeking obsession had not led to the privatisation of much of the health sector in the United States, we would have been better prepared.
The problem lies in the wrong priorities – the US Congress has prioritised military expenditures and approved a trillion-dollar military. We also have a worldwide “mass surveillance” program revealed to us by the former CIA operative Edward Snowden (read his book Permanent Record, 2019).
All of that money could have been devoted to research and development in the health sector – to tackle diseases, develop vaccines, build better respirator machines, etc. Prevention and preparedness should have been US policy – instead of running in panic when an emergency arises.
Alas, the United States has an “I’ll sue you” culture that serves that infantile desire to “punish” the “bad guys” and to instrumentalise the law against others – instead of seeing the law as a common duty to constructive cooperation.
The pertinent provision in the IHRs is Article 56 on settlement of disputes before the WHO Health Assembly. But back in 2005 the US did not even want to envisage any potential US liability. In one of its reservations, the US made clear its understanding that the “provisions of the Regulations do not create judicially enforceable private rights.”
In this context, however, it would appear reasonable for states parties to discuss whether the sanctions imposed by the United States on Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, etc have not significantly weakened the capacity of these countries to effectively combat COVID-19, and whether the Health Assembly should not call upon the United States to lift the sanctions at least during the pandemic, because the sanctions clearly contravene the spirit and letter of Article 44 IHR, which requires maximum cooperation in combatting a pandemic.
How would you envisage the post-COVID-19 world? What “We,” and “Others,” have to do to draw a correct conclusion from this shared tragedy in order to leave this planet a better place for the coming generations?
Either we cooperate or we go under together.
The post-COVID-19 world cannot and must not go back to “business as usual.” We need a paradigm change away from the neoliberalism that has significantly contributed to the unpreparedness of so many countries to combat the pandemic. We need a true commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes, to multilateralism rather than unilateralism. •
Sources: asiatimes.com/2020/05/achieving-an-equitable-world-order/, May 19,2020 (Excerpts) and asiatimes.com/2020/05/road-to-recovery-no-time-for-blaming-others/, 20 May 2020 (Excerpts)
* Alfred de Zayas, professor of international law, former secretary of the UN Human Rights Committee, and the UN’s independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order from 2012 to 2018
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